Ron Taketa’s term on the Honolulu Police Commission expired nine months ago, yet Mayor Kirk Caldwell has yet to reappoint or replace him.
The question is, why?
The commission has been catapulted into the spotlight for its refusal to address an ongoing criminal probe of Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha over accusations of public corruption and abuse of power.
Under city rules, the police commission is supposed to provide oversight of the Honolulu Police Department, including handling complaints of misconduct. It’s the only entity that can hire or fire a chief.
Taketa, the commission chairman, has become the face of denial regarding the chief. He even refused to acknowledge that Kealoha was under federal investigation despite numerous media reports, including those that named the federal prosecutor in the case.
For years, the commission has been criticized for its inability to address what appears to be rampant misconduct within the Honolulu Police Department.
Numerous officers have been arrested recently in cases involving drugs, prostitution and extortion. Others have faced charges for beating up citizens and accidentally shooting a bartender in the belly.
There are concerns about the excessive use of force by police officers, and whether the commission is too lenient.
Still, Caldwell has not acted. In fact, he doesn’t seem to want to talk about Taketa at all.
“It’s sort of inexcusable that the mayor is running for re-election and he’s refusing to engage in a major social problem in our community.” — UH professor Meda Chesney-Lind
Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist and professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii, says the mayor has a chance to influence positive change at HPD by appointing a new member to the police commission who has both the willingness and know-how to provide meaningful oversight.
Allowing Taketa to sit in limbo doesn’t accomplish that, she said. It indicates the mayor is unwilling to take part in discussions taking place both locally and nationally about police transparency and accountability.
If there were ever a time for Caldwell to step up, it’s now, she said.
“It’s sort of inexcusable that the mayor is running for re-election and he’s refusing to engage in a major social problem in our community,” Chesney-Lind said. “The buck stops at his desk and he seems to be avoiding the opportunity to address what is a very serious problem in his administration.”
Caldwell, who refused to be interviewed for this report, has repeatedly dodged questions about Taketa. He also doesn’t like to talk about the ongoing problems at HPD, particularly those involving the chief.
Some have speculated that Caldwell is being careful to not upset the politically influential police union, which has been a vocal backer of Kealoha. There’s another union connection: Taketa is the head of the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters, one of the largest labor unions in the state.
The carpenters union played an extraordinary role in the 2012 mayoral race through the Pacific Resource Partnership, a union-affiliated super PAC that spent millions of dollars on television ads and ground support in an effort to defeat former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano’s mayoral bid.
Cayetano opposed the city’s multi-billion-dollar rail project, which PRP and the carpenters union wholeheartedly supported. Their efforts — unprecedented in Hawaii politics — are largely credited with launching Caldwell into office.
On June 3, Caldwell was asked about his plans for Taketa’s seat during a press conference in which the mayor announced a new appointment and a reappointment to the police commission.
Caldwell incorrectly told the media that Taketa’s term wasn’t over until the end of 2016 and that he hadn’t decided what to do.
His press officer, Jesse Broder Van Dyke, sent out a clarification email later that day, saying that the mayor had asked Taketa to remain on the police commission “for the time being.”
The press conference was focused on Caldwell’s appointment of Loretta Sheehan, a former state and federal prosecutor, to the police commission. Sheehan was replacing Helen Hamada, who, like Taketa, was serving in a holdover capacity.
Caldwell’s announcement came shortly after Hamada had spoken out about her eroding confidence in Kealoha. Up until that point no one else on the commission had wavered in their support, at least not publicly.
The mayor also announced at the June press conference that he was reappointing Max Sword to the commission. Sword is a high-ranking executive with Outrigger Hotels and Resorts, a major player in Hawaii’s tourism industry.
Charles Djou, who’s running against Caldwell in the November election, said the mayor’s inaction on Taketa amounts to negligence.
Djou, a former congressman who has called for Kealoha to step aside while the federal grand jury conducts its investigation, said there are too many problems within the ranks of HPD.
“The bottom line is the mayor is showing a lack of leadership,” Djou said. “From my vantage point there’s a pattern emerging from the Caldwell administration that they simply can’t get their act together.”
Djou said Sheehan appears to be a good appointment to the commission, considering her outspokenness. But Djou didn’t want to discuss Taketa’s performance as a commissioner, saying that he has yet to talk with the chairman about his duties.
“I definitely think we need to look at re-examining the leadership of HPD. And I want commissioners who are going to aggressively look at reforming the leadership of the police department.” — Charles Djou
Djou added that he has no evidence of any “direct political machinations” between Caldwell and the carpenters union.
“I don’t know exactly how much Ron Taketa has done,” Djou said. “I definitely think we need to look at re-examining the leadership of HPD. And I want commissioners who are going to aggressively look at reforming the leadership of the police department.”
Taketa did not respond to a request for an interview.
State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers President Tenari Maafala, who has publicly defended Kealoha, had kind words for Taketa and the rest of the commission. Maafala added that it was up to the mayor to make a decision about Taketa’s future.
He also said he had faith in Caldwell — who he called “an upright person” — to make the right decision.
“I have no problems with any of the commissioners,” Maafala said. “I do applaud each and every one of them for their commitment to want to step up and be a part of an important commission that oversees the department and, specifically, the chief of police.”
Colin Moore is an associate professor of political science at the University of Hawaii Manoa and the director of the school’s Public Policy Center, which conducts research and analyses of complex social problems. He says Caldwell’s inaction on Taketa is curious, but it might also be politically savvy.
“This strikes me as the sort of decision a politician makes when they’re trying to buy themselves some time before an election,” Moore said. “It’s too late now for Caldwell to say, ‘I’m going to take this seriously and I’m going to be seen as a police reform mayor.’ I think he’s worried that whatever happens with Kealoha that he will be dragged into it.”
If Caldwell reappoints Taketa, Moore said voters might see it as a sign that the mayor won’t adequately address allegations of police corruption and misconduct.
Caldwell has sidestepped questions about whether he supports Kealoha as chief or believes he should step aside during the ongoing U.S. Department of Justice’s criminal probe.
The mayor’s go-to soundbite on the issue has been that Honolulu is one of safest cities in the U.S. and that he supports HPD and its leadership for making it that way.
Moore said Caldwell also has to be careful about appointing another Loretta Sheehan-like commissioner. Sheehan makes headlines nearly every time she speaks because she’s the only commissioner pressing the chief and his staff to explain how they’re addressing police misconduct.
She’s called on the commission to conduct its own investigation of the chief stemming from allegations that he framed his wife’s uncle for the theft of their mailbox. So far none of her colleagues seems interested.
“The last thing Caldwell wants is for the police commission to raise questions in the way that Sheehan has,” Moore said. “I think he wants to keep it as boring as he can.”